Council Leader's response to Leighton Andrews AM, Minister for Public Services
20 March 2015
The following letter was sent in response to the rejection of the voluntary merger proposal submitted by the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend Councils.
I am writing in relation to your rejection of the Expression of Interest to voluntarily merge the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend Councils. I have waited until my initial dismay had abated and until I had the opportunity to report your decision formally to a meeting of full Council. I attach a copy of my statement to Council for your information. I will be posting that statement along with this response on the Council’s internal and external website, in line with the Welsh Government’s approach.
To say that I feel a keen sense of disappointment and frustration with your decision is an understatement. Officers in both Councils worked hard in the short time allowed by your timetable to produce a case which, in my opinion, was cogent and convincing and complied in all respects with the guidelines for submitting Expressions of Interest as set out in the prospectus. I consider that we demonstrated that we had a vision for the prospective new Council that matched Welsh Government’s and that would best serve the people of this region of Wales. We undertook preliminary engagement with local stakeholders and described how a fuller engagement process would be conducted. We obtained the support of key partners, including letters from the Cardiff and the Vale University Health Board (Cardiff & Vale UHB), the Abertawe University Health Board (ABMU), the Police, the Police Commissioner and the Fire Service as required. We enumerated the precise service issues that would need to be further explored in detail. The fact that the two Councils will not be allowed even to explore these matters further is, if nothing else, entirely mystifying to me, particularly after having our meeting prior to the submission, where although it was accepted you could not make any formal comment, you did send us on a what now appears to have been a wasted journey, in both time and effort.
The reason, according to your letter, our submission was rejected is essentially a single one: that the proposed Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend Council would not be coterminous with the Local Health Board boundary. I would respond to this in three ways.
Firstly, I would make the point that, for councils, the health service, although undoubtedly a major partner, is only one of a number of public sector organisations with whom we collaborate constantly. To insist, as Welsh Government is doing, that councils can only be reorganised on the basis of the current health board boundaries is to give an undue weight to one particular sector, whose boundaries may (and in my opinion should) change in the future. There appears to be a danger that local government is becoming the subject of an artificial and arbitrary re-organisation in order to align it to the current configuration of another service. The fact, for example, that the current police and fire authority boundaries are not in alignment with Welsh Government’s preferred options appears to be being ignored and would presumably therefore need to change. I emphasised this fact previously, but it does not appear to have been taken into account.
I think it is incumbent upon me to add that Bridgend is also within the Cardiff Capital Region, which I understood was a major plank in the Welsh Government’s regeneration and economic strategy within this part of South East Wales. This is an approach we have embraced. In a similar manner, Bridgend is also a partner within the WLGA’s South East Wales Partnership, which the Leader of Bridgend Chairs and has done for some time.
Secondly, there is the substantive issue of Councils working with Health Boards. I believe that it is again worth confirming that residents of this County currently and frequently use the services of ABMU. Similarly residents of Bridgend use the services of Cardiff & Vale UHB. It is also a factor that the South Wales [Health] Programme is predicated on using all Health services across the region, no matter where you live in South Wales.
While we were obviously aware of the obstacles posed by the proposed new council straddling two health boards, exploring how it could be made to work by councils who are already operating successfully with health service colleagues would have been rewarding and would have properly tested the Welsh Government’s assumption that the new local authority boundaries could not cross health boundaries. I would also point out that Welsh Government seems to have no problem with health boundaries covering more than one local authority area. Consequently there appears to be a lack of consistency in the rationale.
Thirdly, if this lack of coterminosity was always going to be an overriding factor, why did you encourage us to prepare a submission when we raised this very issue at the outset? All our time and effort could have been more profitably spent in pursuing other matters.
I firmly believe we made a convincing case in our submission and that for the totality of council services, the best synergy was between the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend Councils rather than between the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff, and that the interests of our residents would be best served by the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend proposition.
I also draw attention to the implications of your decision for another key service, namely education. Bridgend Council are a member of the Central South Consortium Joint Education Service. If their merger with Neath Port Talbot, as favoured by Welsh Government, goes ahead, then either Bridgend will have to join the South West Wales Consortium or remain where they are. If the former this will mean further upheaval; if the latter another boundary would be set up. It seems strange to my mind that the organisation of such a crucial service for Wales does not pose the same problems for Welsh Government as is the case with health. Why should health and education be accorded such different priorities?
I could continue with instances where a joint Bridgend/Vale of Glamorgan approach would make obvious sense, but since our submission has in my estimation already amply made that case in areas such as the basic command unit for the police or the fire service boundary, which all fall within the two authority boundaries, I will refrain further. Nevertheless, I hope they were actually considered.
I find it galling that on the basis of what seems like dogma, the current health service boundaries are seen by Welsh Government as outweighing all other considerations in respect of the public service in Wales. You say in your letter that “breaking the health board boundary would inevitably increase complexities that could potentially impact on the delivery of key health and social services for citizens”. In the Vale of Glamorgan Council’s response to the “Reforming Local Government” White Paper we made the point that complexity is only an issue, if it is seen as such from the public’s perspective. There is already an inevitable complexity given the wide variety of services provided by different organisations in the public sector; the key is to make the user’s experience of navigating through the complexity a seamless one. I believe we should have been allowed to demonstrate how this could be done and am annoyed at the missed opportunity. However, if coterminosity with health boundaries is all important to your objectives, then I would suggest that you should reconsider your decision and amend the current health authority boundaries thereby allowing such a merger to develop (there are options available).
I should also like to remind you that you asked Welsh local government to come up with alternative proposals to your own provisional ones. The Vale of Glamorgan Council responded with a well thought out and practical case. To be so summarily denied, in a few short lines, the opportunity to prepare a fuller business case, which is all that was required and requested, in what was simply an ‘expression of interest’ is disgraceful. Regrettably, this leads me to feel hugely let down and despondent on behalf of both Councils’ Members and our citizens, who we all serve, both in local and national government.
It seems to me that your wholesale rejection of all the submissions for voluntary mergers has now left us in greater confusion than ever. I would urge you to reconsider your decision so that the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend Councils can rise to the many challenges ahead and achieve the service transformation needed without delay. The future of the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend residents would then be determined by a well thought out reasoned case rather than whatever “deal” can be struck by Welsh Government with a political party from the opposition.
Councillor Neil Moore
Leader of the Vale of Glamorgan Council